One single small fungus spore does that to an ant. You have trillions of bacteria in your body. How do you know where you end, and where your environment begins?
Everyday I grapple with questions like these, and I wonder about the value of philosophical examinations; if the thousands of geniuses who lived and died before me haven’t found the right answer, what makes me think that I will. And I have concluded that philosophy is not about discovering new things, and finding new answers. Philosophy teaches us and unsettles us by confronting us with what we already know. It works by taking what we already know from familiar, unquestioned settings, and making it strange. It estranges us from the known not by supplying new information but by inviting and provoking a new way of seeing. And so does philosophy become an end in itself.
Of course I didn’t always know this. I remember my teacher telling me about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and at the end he said: even today that is the best explanation of knowledge. And then I felt outraged, because I thought this cannot be! After thousands of years, man must know more. There have been so many philosophers, they must have found out more. And I thought I could prove him wrong. And that’s when I seriously started studying philosophy.
The reaction of people around me is another thing altogether. Coming from a small town in a developing country, the common understanding is that philosophy is the “rich man’s venture”. The reason is also understandable: the utility from these pursuits is usually academic and not very material; and as a consequence not worth spending time on, and especially not at the cost of other more practical pursuits. To them I say that philosophy is closer to the so-called “real world” than they’d like to think.
You may think— like most people do— you are not really influenced by philosophy. But I’d ask you to reconsider. Have you ever said the following? “It was a bad thing to do, but its only human to make mistakes, because man is intrinsically flawed” Augustine said it before you. Or, “It might be true for you, but that doesn’t make it true for me.” Nietzsche said it before you. Or, “It’s bad because it’s selfish.” Kant said it before you. Or, “This maybe be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” Plato said it before you. Or, “How can you be so sure? Can we really be absolutely certain about it?” Descartes (and many, many others) said it before you.
So it’s rather quite humbling when you do philosophy because first, you realise how small you are measured against the entire wealth of human thought. But then you begin to feel this sort of contentment that you’ve gotten so far in the thought process of accepting the philosophical attitude towards different problems, that you can feel the happiness of not knowing something.
Today I read about Kant’s categorical imperatives and Heidegger’s being-in-itself, and Camus’ absurdism, and Sartre’s radical freedom. I try to imagine what might have caused them to propound their revolutionary ideas and how they all sought to make sense of the world as they knew it. But how far does it make sense to even make sense? I tried to put a meaning behind everything I did, and depending on how long you do it, you come to a point where you realise this doesn’t make any sense at all. Even posing the question of meaning devalues any meaning. And then I read ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and I said to myself: you know what, 42.